Our Divided Nation

No one who hasn’t been living under a rock could be unaware that America is divided over a man who has been pushed — suddenly and improbably — to one of the pinnacles in the mountain range of fame.

His five-letter name has been known to us for years, yet only in 2016 have we been asked to think of him in an entirely new guise. Mention of his name is enough to provoke  stirring cheers and a sense of deep puzzlement, even disappointment. Shouldn’t it have been someone else?

The man’s name isn’t even really his own, his critics say. In fact, the name he goes by might have been designed for a hotel, or a record album.

The man is, of course, Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, and the newest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’ve been amused, and sometimes appalled, by the flurry over Bob Dylan that has scorched my social-media feed this week.

The arguments — they’re barely arguments — go something like this:

Dylan is a songwriter, and not a poet.  Stephen Sondheim, Paul Simon, Beyonce, Lin-Manuel Miranda could be contenders now, though one of those four is of advanced age and another is closing in on him. O Stockholm, the clock is ticking.

If an American was going to win it should have been Philip Roth, who represents the Great Tradition view of the literature Nobel, a prize that was denied all sorts of great writers, including Proust, Woolf, Joyce, Nabokov, and Achebe. That list that could be expanded in all sorts of directions to include, for example, Murakami, Pynchon, and Adonis, at least two of whom were allegedly on this year’s short list.

One camp applauds Dylan’s coronation because, well, they love Dylan, which is a good enough reason, though the same argument is presented by the skeptics, who want wealthy, popular performing celebrities to fall outside the prize arena. Dylan is a very wealthy man.

It has been suggested that no Nobel laureate since Rabindranath Tagore won in 1913 has been read by so many people. The argument based on widespread familiarity, though, falls before the awards to many, many (and let me emphasize many) Nobel awardees at the other end of that spectrum. Aleixandre, Cela, Szymborska are all honored artists, but no one could claim they are widely read.  It hurts to type this.

Then there is the argument about lowest bar. Winston Churchill, the man who presided over England in its finest hour, was awarded the literature prize in 1953 for his writing and for his “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”  The Churchill Defense, which sounds like a chess move, would propose that if Churchill could be awarded the literature prize we’ve dissolved the category of literature, at least as far as the Nobel goes, and all sorts of wordsmithing should count.

And indeed last year’s prize went to Svetlana Alexievich, whose primary genre is journalism, “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

At least nobody has sent me posts about Sully Prudhomme. (He won the first Nobel in literature back in 1901.)

So what can we infer from Dylan’s selection?

  • That the Nobel committee addresses literature as a category responsible for the exploration of human values. I can’t think of any writer who would dissent from that objective, as long as the writer were allowed to define the terms of the exploration. Our world is a mess, and writers reflect that.
  • That the concept of genre is  even more estranged from modern life  than we might have thought — a leftover from a point in time when literature was composed of neater, more easily categorizable  forms of wording (I’m avoiding the term writing here, but it isn’t easy).
  • That the form of celebrity we ascribe to novelists is reshaped at the Nobel table. Shouldn’t a novelist be the Nobel winner? ask many folks, including many novelists. By the way, most of the laureates of the past half century, many of whom have written in multiple genres, might first be identified as novelists.
  • That Americans are never really happy about the outcome of the Nobel Prize in Literature, even if the only country that has won more Nobels in literature than the U.S. is France, and even though more literature laureates have written in English (often among several languages, as in the case of Beckett) than in any other tongue. We are a divided people united only in our disaffection, at least when it comes to crowning our artists.
  • That songwriting is, and always has been, a tricky category of literary art. Those who admire Dylan as an inspired musical creator get defensive on the question of whether his lyrics really do stand as poetry.

And that is a very good question.

But that seems not to be the question the Nobel committee was addressing, ergo the provocation of the award.

Last year Alexievich, this year Dylan. Where will the Nobel committee next redefine Nobel-able literature? Outstanding screenwriting? Blogging?

Don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin.

By the way, if you really must stay in a hotel with the well-known five-letter name of a man much in the news, there’s a Dylan Hotel in New York and a Hotel Dylan in Amsterdam.  Just sayin.’


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano


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